Directed by: S. Craig Zahler.
Written by: S. Craig Zahler.
Starring: Kurt Russell (Sheriff Hunt), Patrick Wilson (Arthur), Matthew Fox (Brooder), Richard Jenkins (Chicory), Lili Simmons (Samantha), Evan Jonigkeit (Deputy Nick), David Arquette (Purvis), Fred Melamed (Clarence), Sid Haig (Buddy).
S. Craig Zahler’s directing debut Bone Tomahawk is a sturdy, old fashioned Western for most of its running time, before becoming a brutally violent horror film in its third act – a genre hop that most movies of its sort couldn’t handle, but this does with ease. From its first scene – of two criminals (played by David Arquette and Sid Haig), the movie is clearly a self-aware Western, and while it certainly references the work of John Ford – notably, The Searchers – it also subtly subverts the genre throughout. The key attributes of the movie are the cast – all of whom are game, and clearly relishing their roles, and the dialogue which is witty and slyly humorous throughout. Looking at the films IMDB page, I noticed that it said that the film’s screenplay was shot on its first draft – and that I have no problem believing, as the film clocks in at 132 minutes, which is probably 30 too many, and another pass at the screenplay may have yielded a tighter film. Not that a tighter film would have necessarily been an improvement, as one of the chief joys of Bone Tomahawk is how it takes its time with its tangents (it’s not unlike a Tarantino movie in that way), but it also may have cut down on its repetition.
When you boil down Bone Tomahawk to its essentials, it is basically about the Wild West being populated by idiots, who make one mistake after another, that dig them into a deeper hole. The main action of the movie gets started when Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell) shoots the surviving criminal (Arquette) from that opening sequence, because his Deputy, Chicory (Richard Jenkins) tells the Sheriff that he was acting suspicious – which he was. Hunt doesn’t kill Arquette, just shoots him in the leg, but the wound is enough that they send for the town doctor, Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons), who mends the wound, but realizing her patient has a fever decides to spend the night at the jail to monitor him. Another Deputy, Nick (Evan Jonigkeit) stays with her – and the next morning, all three of them have vanished, and a stable boy has been brutally killed. It’s those savage Indians, no doubt, and a quick interrogation of one Indian lets them know what tribe they are looking for – some cave dwellers that he refers to as “troglodytes”. It wasn’t too smart to shoot the criminal in the first place – he was a criminal, but there were other ways to handle the situation. And it certainly isn’t smart for four men – Hunt and Chicory are joined by Samantha’s husband, Arthur (Patrick Wilson), despite a broken leg, and Brooder (Matthew Fox), who speaks with an Eastern accent, but boasts of being a Indian killing machine, to head out to try and track them down – but they do so anyway. Most of the movie is these four men on the trial – before they do finally arrive, and get more than they bargained for from the tribe.
Zahler is a novelist, and that shows in this movie, as it certainly does take its time getting anywhere, and prizes dialogue over action for the majority of its runtime. If the dialogue wasn’t so good, and wasn’t delivered so well by the actors, Bone Tomahawk would risk being dull and slow. But it works – especially with Kurt Russell in the lead role – one of two 2015 movies where he is essentially playing a John Wayne character (alongside Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight), but showing us the deficiencies of that sort of character in reality. Richard Jenkins is a pure joy as Chicory – which is basically a role that Walter Huston would have killed back in the 1940s as the somewhat foolish old timer, who may be better than we think. Matthew Fox is clearly having fun as Brooder, more upper class and refined, than the rest of them – and also more boastful. Patrick Wilson is fine as Arthur, but it’s clearly the dullest of the four major roles, as he basically grimaces in pain from his leg for much of the films running time, but keeps on trucking (but hell, DiCaprio is about to win an Oscar for doing that).
The left field turn in the final act, becoming far more brutally violent than anticipated works because Zahler is so committed to it. The word “savages” was a staple of old Westerns to describe Native Americans – most often unfairly, but here they really are savages. Yes, you could say the film is problematic, in that this tribe confirms the savage label placed upon the Native Americans in Westerns – but that’s assuming you think that this tribe is Native American – or hell, human – which I don’t think they are.
It must be said that, unsurprisingly, Zahler is a better writer than he is a director. For the most part, this is a fairly straight forward looking film – and its small budget at times shows, including in the horror elements that end the film. This is a film crying out for more style than Zahler can muster. Yet, the ideas, writing and acting in the film make it well worth seeing – hell, it would make an interesting part of a triple bill alongside the biggest Western of 2015 – The Hateful Eight and The Revenant – as it somewhat critiques both films, that obviously Zahler had no way of seeing before he made it, but still it fits. Zahler needs more experience as a director to be sure – but Bone Tomahawk is a fine place to start.